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Stark Runs Into Stiff Resistance

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Rep. Charlie Rangel, shown here at the memorial for the late Rep. John Murtha, agreed to give up his Ways and Means gavel on Wednesday after it became clear that his support was crumbling.

Pelosi’s proposal got a lukewarm reception, and it appeared that panel members were still trying to find a single consensus candidate to rally behind. Members’ hope is to settle on a candidate and bring that name to the full Democratic Caucus for an endorsement. If the panel cannot make a decision internally, the question would be thrown, wide-open, to the full Caucus — a potential food fight that top aides are desperately hoping to avoid at a time when the party is trying to rescue its domestic agenda.

No obvious replacement leaps from the top ranks of the panel’s roster. Following Levin in seniority is Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), but he carries the taint of his own ethics problems. Two years ago, McDermott settled a decade-long ethics dispute by paying House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) more than $1 million for leaking the contents of an illegally taped phone call.

Fifth-ranking Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) could have been a natural compromise — like Rangel, Lewis is a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that has been dismayed by Rangel’s sidelining atop the committee. But exiting the Ways and Means meeting Wednesday night, Lewis was emphatic that he has taken himself out of the running for the post. Rounding out the list of likely successors is Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), at least a decade younger than those ahead of him on the dais and a lawmaker colleagues describe as a rising star. But whether he could win the support of liberals remains an unanswered question, as does whether Democrats would sign off on leapfrogging someone so relatively junior.

The intrigue in the powerful panel capped a tumultuous week in the Rangel saga. Facing ethics probes for more than a year, the 20-term Harlem Democrat had managed to stave off Republican demands he step down. But in the aftermath of his admonishment by the ethics committee last week for taking a pair of corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean, his support among Democrats cracked — then crumbled. By Tuesday night, it was clear the end was near as he huddled with Pelosi behind closed doors on the matter. Democratic aides had insisted that Rangel would use the meeting to offer up his gavel, but afterward he defiantly declared he was still the Ways and Means chairman.

That claim lasted until Wednesday morning, when he appeared before reporters and television cameras in the Capitol to announce he was abandoning his perch. Rangel explained the move as an effort to spare his colleagues the burden of defending him in an election year.

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